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The disintegration of ice shelves — 'floating' sheets of ice — could be a major factor in the possible collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), according to a new study carried out by researchers in Argentina.

The findings reinforce the idea that ice shelves may play a key role in stabilising inland glaciers. Furthermore, as ice shelves are vulnerable to increases in air temperature, it raises the possibility that global warming could lead to catastrophic polar ice melting and subsequent sea level rises.

Scientists from the Antarctic Institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina, conducted aerial surveys of the northeastern Antarctic Peninsula, and found clear signs that several glacial streams had surged forward following the disintegration of the Larsen Ice Shelf in 1995.

Such ice streams could, in turn, cause depletion of the WAIS and contribute to its collapse. These results contradict recent theories, which conclude that ice shelves should not affect the behaviour of continental ice sheets.

The study will feed into an ongoing debate as to whether climate change is likely to lead to a collapse of the polar ice sheets, and the potential impacts of such an event on sea levels.

A year ago, a report by the British Antarctic Survey said that although it was unlikely that WAIS will collapse in the next few centuries, there remains a one-in-20 chance that melting of the sheet could cause dramatic sea-level rise within the next century (see 'One in 20' risk of ice sheet collapse).

Link to research paper in Science

Reference: Science 299, 1560

Related external links:

Instituto Antártico Argentino
British Antarctic Survey

Photo credit: H de Angelis / P Skvarca, Instituto Antártico Argentino